She thought there was nothing in her slice. The young boy beside her courteously handed her the coin he’d found in his, accompanied by a blush.
Three days later, as she helped her mother prepare lunch by setting the table, the star fell out of her mouth as she placed her father’s water glass just so. It landed on the table, and Nell picked it up and pressed it to her breast, over her heart. The star seemed to melt through her dress into her skin, and was gone, but the light of it forever after shone in her eyes.
“She’ll never be a stay-at-home,” the gossips whispered. At times, Nell overheard her father’s friends remarking on her looks, and sometimes asking when she would be ready to marry. Silently, she vowed it would never happen.
“I’m going to run away!” she shouted, when her father starting asking her the same question. “I’m going to explore the whole world, and I’m never coming back, never, never!”
Her mother frowned at the display of temper, but her father laughed. “She’s clearly not ready yet,” he said, then turned to her. “But don’t run away just yet. One day you might be!”
Nell plunged deeper into the forest, sobbing aloud. Time had not cured her disinclination for marriage, but the suitors kept coming. Even her father was no longer indulging her dreams of travel. It felt like her heart was burning through the tears, and she had to escape, even if only for a little while.
Emerging from the forest into a bright glade, she gasped, catching her hands to her chest. In the meadow a maiden was dancing, young, lithe, and fair. Nell could not look away.
“Would you like to dance with me?” the maiden said, smiling.
“Yes,” Nell answered.
Nell’s father passed away, leaving behind a pension for her mother to live on, but nothing over. Now with money needed desperately, Nell turned to writing, telling stories of her adventures.
She’d wandered far and wide across the Land of Faery, seeing many beautiful and some terrifying things, all unaware she was protected by the star over her heart from lesser evils, and kept safe from greater evils in ways she did not know.
All this time, she dreamed of the maiden she’d danced with, seeking her ever, but finding her not.
Her books were, to her own surprise, successful.
Her hair was grey but her eyes were bright, and the star over her heart still kept her safe. After her mother’s death, Nell wandered deep into the lands beyond mortal ken, and did not emerge for many years.
One fair day, she climbed a great mountain, seeing a city glimmering far above. At the gates, she gave her name. One of the guards, a warrior carrying a bright spear, turned, smiling to see her. “You must come with me,” he said.
“Where?” Nell asked, feeling small and afraid.
“To the palace of the Queen, by her order,” he said.
The Queen of Faery’s throne room was more like the highest point of a tall mountain. Wind washed over Nell so strongly she felt she might fall at any moment. Behind her the whole realm of Faery was laid out. Misty borders far away betokened her own village of Wootton Major.
Nell forgot all her fear when her eyes met the Queen’s. She stood tall upon the height, crowned, majestic. But those eyes were the eyes of the beautiful maiden who had danced with her, long ago.
“Fairest Nell!” the Queen said, holding out her hands.
Nell kissed them, laughing.